Minnie Riperton, Black Women, and Breast Cancer

Did Minnie Riperton die needlessly of breast cancer? Many black women do

It’s been more than 30 years since she died of breast cancer, but African-American singer Minnie Riperton is one artist whose 1975 hit single “Lovin’ You,” will continue to regale us through the years.
That, and her extraordinary five-and-a-half octave vocal range.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in January 1976, Riperton was one of the first celebrities to go public with her diagnosis. She later went on to become a spokesperson for the American Cancer Society, and in 1978, she received the American Cancer Society’s Courage Award, presented to her at the White House by President Jimmy Carter. She died at age 31 on July 12, 1979.

What few of us know is that Riperton is only one in a growing number of black women who are diagnosed with cancer at a very late stage.

Because they don’t have access to proper care and the right information, nearly five black women die needlessly everyday from breast cancer — that’s according to a new study published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology on March 21.

The study said that more than 1,700 black women die unnecessarily each year and that poverty and racial inequities — not genetics — are responsible for the higher death rate. In fact, according to the authors, black women are less likely than white women to get breast cancer.

But more African American women are likely to die from it — with the differences in mortality emerging in the early 1980s. By 2007, death rates were 41 percent higher among black women than among white women — even while rates for both groups were going down, the American Cancer Society says.

But this isn’t news: Doctors and researchers have long known about the disparity in national scale mortality rates. What’s new is that the study, done by researchers from the Sinai Urban Health Institute in Chicago, was the first to look at the statistics city-by-city.

Funded by the Avon Foundation, the study urges the government to commit to making access to quality breast health care — from screening to treatment — available to all women, regardless of their ability to pay. Avon supports breast cancer research and education along with other women’s causes.

What the Sinai Institute researchers did was to review statistics in the nation’s 25 largest cities. They found that 21 of these cities showed a racial disparity in the breast cancer mortality rates between black and white women. San Franciso had the smallest disparity of the cities; Memphis had the highest.

Bringing together each city’s population with the disparity, researchers came up with this estimate: each year, 1,722 black women die unnecessarily from breast cancer.

“Our research shows societal factors — not genetics — are largely to blame for the racial disparity in breast cancer mortality nationwide,” says Stephen Whitman, director of the institute and the study’s lead author.

The upside of this is that black women can play an active role in reducing their risk. “When a woman believes genetics causes her disease, it breeds a sense of hopelessness and fear,” he notes.

But quality care for all women should be made more accessible by the healthcare community — including those who are uninsured or under-insured, Dr. Whitman says. Poor women who lack access to quality care are more vulnerable to dying from breast cancer, doctors and researchers agree.

Commenting on the study, the executive director of the Black Women’s Health Imperative says, “It’s now time for researchers to go beyond calling for black women to play a more active role and call on clinicians and healthcare providers to look at access to newer and more advanced technologies to detect tumors and offer more advanced therapies for proper care and treatment.”

Eleanor Hinton Hoyt, head of the Washington-based advocacy group goes on to say the study, “doesn’t give us what we need for uncovering, addressing and eliminating … early death outcomes for black women.”

We know that mammograms as they are offered today will not solve the problem, even with early detection— black women are still dying earlier,” she says.